WASHINGTON – The fire and chemical spill that caused the derailment of a Norfolk Southern train in Ohio has sparked a more than decade-long battle in Washington over ways to strengthen rail safety.
The cause of the derailment in East Palestine is still under investigation, with a preliminary report pointing to overheated wheel bearings.
But as investigators search for the cause and how it could have been prevented, speculation and finger-pointing are growing among lawmakers and regulators. Congressional Republicans have questioned the Biden administration’s record on rail safety over the past two years and administration officials say their efforts have been blocked by industry lawmakers and corporate lobbyists.
“The future may not be like the past when it comes to company and industry support for strict safety policies,” Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg said in a letter Sunday to Norfolk Southern CEO Alan Shaw . “After the big derailments of the past there were calls for reform – and that your industry was strongly opposed to increased safety measures. That has to change.”
Major rail accidents have prompted Congress and federal regulators to act in the past, though the efforts have had mixed results. When a commuter train and a freight train collided head-on in Los Angeles in 2008, killing 25 people, Congress ordered that a safety system called positive train control be installed more widely throughout the rail system.
Several derailments during the Obama administration — including one in New Jersey that released thousands of gallons of vinyl chloride, the same chemical released in a recent Ohio accident — prompted new safety recommendations, but not all were enacted.
A rule proposed in 2015 to update certain trains to electronically controlled pneumatic brakes was fiercely opposed by the rail industry, which filed a series of lawsuits citing issues it had found with the braking system and questions about the Department of Transportation’s assessment method. the safety benefit.
Later that year, amidst lobbying from the railroad industry, Congress succeeded in demanding that federal regulators reform their testing of the braking system and reissue the rule if it was found that the benefits were still brakes, which delayed the process for years. By 2018, when the rule had not yet been enacted, the Trump administration withdrew it.
“The last time we saw a series of high-profile incidents, we took strong action and had an avalanche of lawsuits,” a Biden administration official said in a call with reporters last week.
The Association of American Railroads, the industry’s main lobby group, said pneumatic brakes are electronically controlled The test showed that they had a “significant failure rate” and that the required repair time was “too long to make them practical”. The group said the failure of the brake systems could leave trains immobile on the tracks, disrupting the flow of other freight.
National Transportation Safety Board chairwoman Jennifer Homendy said in a tweet last week that the braking system requirement would not apply to the Norfolk Southern train that derailed in Ohio because it was classified as a “mixed freight train,” which is. “high hazard flammable train,” the rule covered.
Biden administration officials said they will wait until the NTSB completes its investigation in Ohio before recommending new safety measures, but ultimately believe the fastest and most effective way to improve rail safety is through congressional action.
“The fastest way to address and get strengthened rules is for Congress to act,” a Biden administration official said Friday. “If Congress has renewed interest, we welcome it and are ready to support their efforts. Rulemaking typically takes years because it requires not only coming up with a rule but opening up to public input, performing a cost-benefit analysis, and then facing those legal battles, which often drags it out further. On the other hand, Congress can act unilaterally and essentially bypass that process.”
Members of Congress have pointed the finger at who is to blame in Ohio, with Democrats attacking the rail industry and Republicans trying to raise questions about the Biden administration’s oversight.
“Corporations do stock buybacks, they do big dividend checks, they lay off workers – Norfolk Southern has laid off thousands of workers – then they don’t invest in safety rules and safety regulations, and these kinds of things happen,” Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, said Sunday on CNN.
Republicans, including Ohio Sen. JD Vance, have accused the Biden administration of trying to shift the blame to the Trump administration. Vance, along with Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., called on the Department of Transportation to do more, including assessing minimum staffing levels on trains under a staffing model used by the industry known as railroads precision scheduling (PSR). The senators said only two workers and a trainee were on the 150-car train that derailed in Ohio.
“We have expressed concern about PSR, as well as this administration’s prioritization of efficiency over resiliency in its national infrastructure and transportation systems,” Vance and Rubio wrote. “For that reason, it is not unreasonable to ask whether a crew of two railway workers, plus one trainee, can effectively monitor 150 cars.”
The administration is in the process of finalizing a regulation introduced last year that would require at least two staff members for most rail operations. A similar effort was made under the Trump administration in 2016, but it was later withdrawn and the administration said it was no longer needed.
Railroad operators have been cutting staff for the past decade despite an increase in freight volume on the railroads as the industry looks to cut costs, current and former railroad officials said. The pandemic intensified the problem as workers who were on furlough when the freight level temporarily dropped did not return to their old jobs when demand decreased.
A report by the Government Accountability Office last December found that total staffing among the seven largest freight railroads fell by about 28% from 2011 to 2021, even though train lengths have increased , which put more responsibility on fewer workers.
“Management started looking for ways to cut costs, drive cash to the bottom line, and ended up laying off about 30% of the staff from top to bottom,” said a former rail safety official during the Bush administration. and Obama who spoke on the condition of anonymity to offer an honest assessment. “Then 2020 happened and the big upheaval didn’t come back when the traffic came back. The industry was in a difficult position. They tried to support the team, but in most cases, that’s easier said than done.”
The Association of American Railroads says it is urging the public to wait until the NTSB’s investigation is complete before drawing any conclusions.
“As the NTSB’s work continues, any speculation about the cause or contributing factors to the incident is just that — speculation — and undermines the entire fact-gathering process,” the group said. industry in a statement. “Additionally, there is an immediate push for legislative or regulatory action that is absent NTSB findings and a response to the accident that is premature at best — and opportunistic at worst.”
The group said that 99.9% of all hazardous shipments reach their destination without incident and that the hazardous accident rate has decreased by 55% since 2012.
Aside from congressional action or new federal rules, administration officials said they also hope some of the $550 billion from the infrastructure law passed in 2021 will help with overall safety improvements on the railroads. The law includes $4 billion in discretionary funds to improve railroad safety and train crossings.
The Biden administration will also issue any civil fines to Norfolk Southern if the NTSB investigation shows any laws were broken, Buttigieg said.
“I want to make sure you are aware that the US Department of Transportation’s (USDOT) Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) is conducting its own analysis to determine if any safety violations have occurred,” he said in the letter to Norfolk Southern. “Using this analysis and after receiving the results of the NTSB’s independent work, the FRA will act with all of its legal authorities to hold Norfolk Southern accountable for any safety violations found that contributed to this derailment.”